Leading Through Safety: Looking Out For Workers Means They Will Look Out For You

Leading Through Safety

When safety is second nature for electrical contractors, they are stronger and better construction team members. However, making safety a core company value takes more than good management; it takes leaders. If your crew members feel you have their backs, they will reciprocate with a commitment to safety.

In day-to-day work, the job-site foreman or first-line supervisor often is the face of a company’s safety values. Part coach, part enforcer, a foreman keeps his or her crew safe.

Steven J. Geigle is the founder and director of OSHAcademy Safety Training, a division of Geigle Safety Group based in Beaverton, Ore. One of his most popular courses (712: Safety Supervision and Leadership) helps supervisors understand the practice of safety leadership.

“At a work site, if you can’t work safely, you don’t do the work,” Geigle said. “If you have to take shortcuts that threaten your crew’s safety, it’s not a job for your company.”

Model supervision

If the safety culture is lacking, a crew will view safety as mere words. Crews look to their supervisors to set the tone. When a safety culture is ingrained, safety practices are reflexive.

“[Crew members] want to do a good job for someone who wants to support them,” Geigle said. “A safe work site is only as good as its leader. You need to be visible on-site. When conducting safety inspections, send an important message of trust, but verify.”

For example, if you warn a worker that their harness is too loose, show them the safe way to wear it right then.

“Educate on the spot,” Geigle said. “It communicates ‘I don’t want you to get hurt.’ You are correcting, but not in an authoritative or controlling ‘my way or the highway’ [style], which won’t get you the high level of performance you are seeking. If you see good safety awareness, congratulate right then and there. You need to build positive relationships with the crew.”

A certain carelessness can settle in with repetitive tasks or job-site deadline pressure. Workers may not consistently wear gloves or goggles, or they may misuse tools, causing installation issues or ergonomic stresses. A supervisor cannot let a laissez-faire attitude envelop a work site; it is not just improper; it also creates false confidence, Geigle said.

“Shortcuts are a never-ending problem,” said Cesar Ortiz, safety director for Houston-based Melton Electric Inc. “That’s why it is important to be visible as a supervisor; be on-site. Don’t allow people to cut corners. Keep them honest, and be consistent.”

Electric shock is one of the top injury incidents cited by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

“As a supervisor, you are enforcing safety rules,” Geigle said. “Establish what I call a ‘tough-caring’ leadership model, which means maintaining high standards and expectations, and an insistence on working safely because you care about the health and welfare of your employees and all the trades.”

Ortiz said injuries have an effect beyond the work site.

“You have people waiting for you at home,” he said. “Reminding workers of this impact makes safety especially personal. We go in wanting zero injuries.”

Other ECs agree it is important to be frank about the dangers.

“In our safety training, we spell out the injuries that can result from falls to arc flashes,” said Bill Heilner, vice president of field operations for Romanoff Electric Co., Toledo, Ohio. “We don’t sugar coat or diminish. Electrocution is a real possibility if certain safety practices are not followed or the proper safety gear is not worn.”

Work crews should feel empowered to stop an unsafe practice when they see it or re-evaluate questionable safety practices.

“We are all responsible for a safe work site,” Geigle said.

For example, at Romanoff Electric, when a superintendent or the company president visit a job site, they too wear the appropriative personal protective equipment (PPE).

Working with GCs

If the general contractor (GC) has a safety protocol in place, you don’t want to disrupt a chain of command, but Geigle said the EC can serve as an on-site consultant. If continuing to do a process one way might increase the chance of accident, communicate the cost of that action.

“You can spell out the degrees of risk,” Geigle said. “It’s important to remember that OSHA cites employers, typically not employees. If you are exemplary in your safety practices, a GC may also recognize ‘You have this, and we trust you.’ If you can lower [workers’] comp and other related cost through safety-practiced crews, that can mean a lot to a GC.”

Ortiz said his company’s safety record helps it win work.

“It makes a big difference in winning complex projects such as hospitals and energy company work,” he said. “We would have not gotten these jobs without our reputation for safety.”

Heilner said Romanoff Electric often sets the level of safety on a job site.

“Our safety policy and procedures are stringent,” Heilner said. “Our personnel are fully PPE’d when on-site. ... sometimes it helps elevate the entire job site. Safety is also a decider when we consider what jobs to bid or take on. If safety and cleanliness on a job site is not a priority, we will pass on that project. We want our employees to be safe and feel safe. Many of our customers have requirements from an [experience modification rate] standpoint. If our rate doesn’t meet certain expectations, we can’t take on the work.”

“We too have pulled off jobs that were not safe,” Ortiz said. “We are always part of project team discussions early on to help better plan a project and reiterate our expectations in safety. If we are the lead contractor on a project, we set the tone. If we’re not, our commitment is to keep our crew safe. We perform safety audits on the job site, as well. Fortunately, times have changed where everyone is better about being on the same page when it comes to a safe work site.”

Romanoff Electric also conducts short interval planning, enabling its on-site supervisors to lay out projects a week in advance and get buy-in from the field on how long tasks should take. The company also is working to earn at all its work sites OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) recognition. VPP helps stimulate a rigid adherence to on-site safety.

The question of discipline

The qustion of discipline

When accidents happen, supervisors should avoid the statement “common sense should have told you.”

“There’s no such thing as common sense,” Geigle said. “It’s either good sense or poor sense. ‘You should have known’ is a maybe, maybe not situation. You need to conduct incidence analysis. Investigation should happen first.”

Ortiz said his firm takes a like-minded approach.

“The very first thing we do when something happens is not place blame,” he said. “We ask if we properly oversaw or planned. If there were policies in place to avoid that accident, we investigate if they were overlooked. If so, why did the individual break policy? Did an accelerated project time frame promote a shortcut? Was the policy ambiguous? These and other instances might be an opportunity for a crew member to point out discoveries we as a company missed on a work site— some policy shortcoming or a need for better communication or improved PPE.”

Support your supervisor

Romanoff Electric and Melton Electric hired safety directors, created safety departments and certified personnel to successfully navigate a top-down and bottom-up safety atmosphere.

“A safety program is also a living document,” Heilner said. “Ours changed two times in the last three years. You have to adapt. Some of it is driven by customers who ask you to meet certain standards new to you. Some is driven by discoveries such as the need for newer PPE like the 100 percent cut-resistant worker gloves we adopted.”

It helps to know what workers face on a day-to-day basis.

“For myself and my assistant, we have an electrical background, which gives us both commonality and insight with our crews,” Ortiz said. “We are looking at safety through the crew’s eyes. It helps inform our safety efforts and [communication] at an effective level. That’s an important aspect of safety leadership.”

Geigle encourages foremen to be involved on safety committees with management and labor. In fact, he advises safety managers to sit in but not lead the committee so a flow of ideas is freer among all members. ECs such as Romanoff Electric and Melton Electric practice that sense of democracy. Leaders lead when you let them.

About the Author

Jeff Gavin

Freelance Writer

Jeff Gavin, Gavo Communications, is a LEED Green Associate providing marketing services for the energy, construction, and urban planning industries. He can be reached at gavo7@comcast.net.

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